The Tyranny of Opinion – Russell Blackford

The post title refers to Russell Blackford’s most recent book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism. Blackford is an annoyingly prolific writer, who has published numerous works of both non-fiction and fiction, as well as having edited at least 5 volumes of essays that I’m aware of.

By way of disclosure, I also regard him as a friend, and he was kind enough to write a blurb for my and Caleb Lack’s 2016 book, Critical Reasoning, Science and Pseudoscience. Despite these connections, this note on the book is unsolicited, and entirely sincere.

As anyone who has been reading Synapses even semi-regularly knows, I’ve long been interested in the increasing tensions between the value of free speech and potentially competing values such as dignity; how the Internet and Twitter mobs present novel challenges to traditional Liberal conceptions of free speech, and how glib formulations such as “facts don’t care about your feelings” are far too often deployed as excuses or justifications for being callous, rather than expressed as some part of a considered argument for unfettered free speech.

Blackford’s book discusses these and related issues, and does a tremendous job of (in crude summary), updating the Liberal arguments for free speech to cater for the challenges and insights that were not part of J.S. Mill (and others’) frame of reference at the time they formulated the arguments that are often applied – without any revision or contextual awareness – to free speech debates today.

There is of course much from Mill that remains completely relevant, even without revision, and much too that is prescient. Take, for example, these observations from Mill, as summarised by Blackford, on the likely outcomes of a 24-hour media cycle, and the omnipresent gaze of uninformed critics on places like Twitter:

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is how it doesn’t pander to the current appetite for demeaning those who feel that free speech arguments are stacked in favour of the historically privileged. It doesn’t deploy pejoratives such as “social justice warrior”, or mock concepts such as “safe spaces”, but instead takes a careful and balanced look at how we might best be able to reconcile free speech interests while also taking care to foster dialogue between people who have competing conceptions of value.

Along the way, you’ll get a thorough grounding in the thoughts of people including John Stuart Mill, Alice Dreger, Glenn Loury, Daniel Solove and many more, and read thoughtful and detailed analyses of recent free-speech controversies, starting (in most of our living memories) with Rushdie and The Satanic Verses, but also including the Christakis incident at Yale, the Hypatia controversy involving Rebecca Tuvel, and many more cases that garnered similar attention.

A common thread in many such cases is that they generated far more heat than light, in that while they provided opportunities to think through and refine our attitudes towards debate, disagreement and what speech is permissible, much more time seems to have been spent shouting at each other, or trying to shut each other up.

Most of us – at least most of my readers, I’d think – subscribe to the idea of “freedom of speech”. Yet the commitment is to an idea that is fairly inchoate, and one that is not necessarily applied consistently across cases.

If we are to have a coherent commitment to free speech, our conception of that value should allow for it to be applied consistently, whether involving controversial expressions by either friends or enemies, or the expression of either popular or unpopular ideas.

The Tyranny of Opinion is a valuable resource in helping us to think these problems through, and I’d encourage you to read it.

(P.S.: An interview with Russell Blackford about the book, and the header image source.)

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.